SACRED FIRE OF THE INDIANS.
By Lewis Cass.
Many of the peculiar custom which formerly existed among the Indian tribes, are now preserved only in tradition, of these, one of the most singular was an institution for the preservation of an eternal fire. All the rites and duties connected with it are yet fresh in the recollection of the Indians; and it was extinguished after the French arrived upon the Great Lakes.
The prevalence of similar custom among the nations of the East, from a very early period, is well known to all who have traced the history and progress of human superstitions. And from them it found its way to Greece and eventually to Rome. It is not, perhaps surprising that the elements of fire should be selected as the object of worship by nations ignorant of the true religion, and seeking safety in that system of polytheism, which declared the manners and morals of the polished people of antiquity. The affections seem to require something visible and tangible for their support. And this mysterious agent was sufficiently powerful in its effects and striking in its operation to appear as a direct emanation of the Deity. But there was a uniformity in the mode of worship, and in the principles of its observance, which leaves no doubt of the common origin of this belief.- The sacred flame was not only regarded as the object of veneration, but its preservation was indissolubly connected with the existence of the state. It was the visible emblem of the public safety; guarded by his chosen ministers, secured by dreadful imprecations and punishments, and made holy by a solemn and imposing ritual. The coincidence which will be found between these observances and opinions and the ceremonies and belief of the Indians, indicate with sufficient certainty, that their notions upon this subject were brought with them from the Eastern Hemisphere, and were derived from the fruitful Persian stock.
I have not ascertained the existence of this custom among any of the northwestern tribes except the Chippewas, although I have reason to believe that the Shawnees were devoted to it, and the Chippewas in fact assert that they received their fire from the latter. But there is so much similarity and even identity of manners and customs among the tribes east of the Mississippi that I have but little doubt the same institution would be every where discovered; if inquiries were prosecuted under favorable circumstances. It is certain that the Natches were fire worshippers, and without giving full credit to all the marvelous tales related of this tribe by the early French travellers, we may yet be satisfied from the many concurring accounts that they were believers in the efficacy of an eternal fire.
The Chippewa tribe formerly inhabited the regions around Lake Superior, and its council house and seat of the eternal fire west of the Keewernau Point. Here lived the principal chief called Mutchekewis, who exercised more authority and assumed more state than would be compatible with the present feelings of the Indians. The designation was official and not personal, and the office was hereditary in the direct male line. He was supported by voluntary contributions, his Muskinewa, or provider, making known from time to time his necessities by public proclamation. Whatever was required upon these occasions, whether food or clothing was immediately furnished. He appears to have been the chief priest, and could neither engage in war nor hunting.
In the village where he resided and near his cabin, the eternal fire was kept burning. The altar was a kind of rude oven, over which no building was erected. Four guardians were selected by the Mutchekewis to take charge of the fire. Two of these were men, and two women. They were all married, but the wives of the men employed in this service were required to cook and do the necessary domestic work, while the husbands of the women destined to the sacred duty, were always engaged in hunting, and providing whatever else was wanted. The four persons devoted to the altar were thus left without any secular cares to divert their attention from the holy trust committed to them. A perpetual succession was kept up in this priesthood by a prerogative of the Mutchekegis and the principal head woman, the former selecting a husband and the latter a wife for the survivor, whenever either of these eight persons died. The chain was thus always unbroken, and the traditionary rights transmitted unimpaired. Death was the penalty for any neglect of duty, and it was inflicted without delay and without mercy.
The council fires were lighted at the great fire and carried wherever the council was held. After the termination of business, a portion of it was carefully returned and the remainder extinguished. Whenever a person became dangerously ill, if near enough, he was taken to the house of the Mutchekewis, where his fire was extinguished, and a brand was brought from the altar and a fire kindled at which a feast was prepared. A great dance was then held, and the viands consumed. And it is added that the patient seldom failed to recover.
Once in eight years the whole Chippewa tribe assembled at their principal village, about the season of the buds. Early in the morning the great pipe was lighted at the sacred fire, and delivered to the Mutchekewis. He took one smoke, and then delivered it to the women, and then to the men, by all of whom it was in like manner smoked. It was then passed to the children. This ceremony consumed the day, and early the next morning a feast was held at which the men, women, and children ate in separate groups, and without singing or dancing. In the evening they departed for their different villages.